Landscape architecture capstone studio recognized by R.I. chapter of American Planning Association

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URI landscape architect students
URI landscape architect students Julia Driscoll (white shirt) and Alexis Stanhope (gray jacket) talk with members of the public as they play “Seekonk-opoly” at a community forum in fall 2018. (Photo courtesy of William Green)

KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 20, 2020 – A University of Rhode Island landscape architecture design studio was recently honored by the American Planning Association’s Rhode Island chapter for its sustainable design ideas for the Henderson Bridge and surrounding areas in East Providence and Providence.

The URI Sustainable Design Studio, which carried out the work in fall 2018 and spring 2019, received the association’s student award along with the project’s clients, the Seekonk Riverbank Revitalization Alliance and East Providence and Providence planning departments.

“This is a confirmation of the value of the work that our design studios are able to provide to the cities and towns of the state,” said William Green, professor of landscape architecture, who directed the studio. “When you consider the topics of urbanism, climate change and sustainability, we are effectively preparing our students for exciting and important careers, while providing an invaluable service to the citizens of our state.”

Built in 1969, the Henderson Bridge, which crosses the Seekonk River and connects East Providence with Providence, has long been a target of transit and biking advocates seeking an updated, multi-model bridge. Also, the surrounding area, which includes an expressway that was never connected to Interstate 195, is a post-industrial landscape of abandoned railroad tracks, unused land, and Brownfield sites waiting to be redeveloped, Green said.

But the capstone class of about 20 students was more than up to the challenge, developing four design themes focused on sustainability and ecology that fit well with the area’s character.

One of the students’ plans envisioned an “uninterrupted greenway” connecting the two cities that included a Henderson Bridge reduced to two lanes; two pedestrian bridges for recreational use; an “economic boulevard” with commercial buildings and affordable housing; green infrastructure to mitigate flooding; increased access to the waterfront; and a park with space for outdoor classes, concerts and art installations. Other designs included a natural restoration and filtration system along the Seekonk River in East Providence; an outdoor area near Orlo Elementary School where students could learn about sustainability and ecology; and a re-designed Henderson Bridge that eliminated traffic completely, creating a lush, green span, allowing for a “visual and physical connection to Blackstone Park [in Providence] and proposed green, open space on the East Providence shoreline.”

The freedom that students have to think outside the box, said Jeff Davis, president of the APA Rhode Island chapter, is the great benefit of student projects. “What makes this particular project exceptional,” he said, “is that these students took the time to engage the communities on both sides of the river, understand the context and potential of the site, and propose ideas that are not merely ‘outside the box,’ but practical options for meeting a multitude of needs.”

Over the years, Green’s capstone design studio and others at URI have captured numerous awards for community projects from the planning association. One of his studios in 2017 worked with the Seekonk Riverbank Revitalization Alliance for a project on the Seekonk River. With the Henderson Bridge scheduled to be replaced, the Alliance and city planners again teamed with the senior design studio.

The capstone class is run like a professional design firm, Green said, presenting seniors and graduate students from related majors, with complex challenges they may not have faced and forcing them to work collectively and communicate with the public and stakeholders. Students conduct site visits and do exhaustive analysis, researching such areas as history and demographics, vegetation and wildlife, buildings and traffic patterns. Their analysis is presented to the public in a community forum early in the project, and their final plans are presented to clients at the end. Students in the fall 2018 studio created a version of the board game Monopoly – “Seekonk-opoly” – and held a question-and-answer session to better understand the needs of the community.

“The public forum teaches the students about the need to listen and learn from stakeholders and clients,” said Green. “It’s a professional experience that they have never had. They are also being pressed by their faculty and other professionals brought to class to come up with more than just a pretty picture, but to look at how you provide a community with sustainable solutions.”

Julia Driscoll, Alyssa Gomes and Chris McCormick, all 2019 graduates in landscape architecture, were members of the team that envisioned the uninterrupted greenway and economic boulevard.

Gomes, of Middletown, a landscape designer with BETA Group in Connecticut, said the course helped prepare her for her current job, where she’s conducted two public workshops.

“When we were introduced to this project, I was a little intimidated because it covered a large area compared to previous projects we had done,” she said. “It presented a lot of issues that we had to come up with solutions for. There were traffic issues, environmental factors such as a Brownfield and pollution from previous development and minimal connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists. Although it was a challenge, it was a great opportunity for a senior design studio.”

While the project was challenging, McCormick, of Cranston, said the site had a lot of potential and the students had plenty of room for creativity. “We visited the site three times to look at the area and talk with clients and stakeholders,” said McCormick, a landscape designer for Deborah Myers Landscape Architecture in Boston. “I think something that everyone took note of was that the area, particularly when viewed from the Henderson Bridge, had a very strong sense of place. That was an important piece of analysis.”

For her part, Driscoll, of Newport, came up with an idea for a wildlife conservancy that would create a habitat for native plants and attract different species. “Through a system of raised boardwalks and paths, local residents would be able to interact directly with the natural ecosystem,” she said. “This would allow for educational opportunities for the adjacent schools, as well as a natural sanctuary for people living in the area.”

Driscoll, a designer at Katherine Field and Associates in Newport, credited the studio with putting her in a professional setting. “The class was very helpful in getting me to think on a large scale,” she said. “It was also a great opportunity to work within a team, which is how real work is done in a studio.”